Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Props


While theatrical productions on the early modern stage often featured lavish and fashionable costumes, the scenery on display in these shows was usually quite minimal. Playhouses of the time were ill-equipped to allow for the elaborate scenery often seen in modern productions; there was no curtain to go up and down between scenes, and the audience surrounded the stage on all sides. Thus, in order to supplement the sparse stage settings, a multitude of creative properties, or props, were employed. Indeed, some of Shakespeare’s props play such a memorable role as to have become indelibly associated with certain of his works: the skull of Yorick in Hamlet, Othello’s handkerchief, or Prospero’s staff in The Tempest, for example, have all come to symbolize the plays themselves. On the Renaissance stage, however, the original use of physical props was primarily a symbolic one. Such objects were read by an audience of the time as having specific associations, rather than appearing as natural objects as they might be today. One relevant item would often stand in for a place, person, or event. A crown or a throne, for instance, represented kingship, and stood in for a palace which could not appear onstage.[1] By the same token, a lit torch would indicate to the audience that it was meant to be dark; spurs on the boots of Horatio, the hanging man, were thought to show that he had been riding; a leaf-covered arbor symbolized a tree; and drawn swords illustrated a tense atmosphere or conflict about to ensue. 

Props can also tell a micro-story by appearing on stage, such as the “apple-john” in 2 Henry IV. In one scene, the audience is told that the aging Sir John Falstaff hates the very sight of apple-johns, as they echo his name and are old and withered, reminding Falstaff of his own mortality (2 Henry IV, II.iv). Thus the apple-johns’ presence onstage provided a visual representation of one character’s greatest fear. 

This does not mean, however, that the types of props being utilized were not varied or interesting. Playhouse manager Philip Henslowe kept a list of props which were in use by his company, the Lord Admiral’s Men at the Rose theater. Under the heading “The Enventary tacken of all the properties for my Lord Admeralles men, the 10 of Marche 1598,” Henslowe recorded items as diverse as a “Hell mought,” “chyme of belles,” “globe, & j golden scepter,” “the sittie of Rome,” “gowlden flece,” “owld Mahametes head,” “Cupedes bowe, & quiver,” “black dogge,” and a “cauderm [cauldron] for the Jewe” (presumably of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta).[2] Henslowe’s diary also makes it clear that it was not unusual for theatrical companies to make their own props for a performance. As part of his meticulous financial records, Henslowe noted that he “pd for bordes & quarters & naylles for to macke a tabell & a coffen for the playe of the iij brothers the 22 of October.”[3]

A reference to props in use on the early modern stage is included in a 1634 letter by Nathaniel Tomkyns, in which he writes about a new play, The Witches of Lancashier, that he has just seen at the Globe. Tomkyns described the titular witches of the show “banqueting with all sorts of meat and drinke conveyed unto them by their familiars upon the pulling of a cord” and also “the walking of pailes of milke by themselves and (as they say of children) a highlone.” These witches made use of “an enchaunted bridle” to transform hapless men into horses. One particularly elaborate use of props which Tomkyns described involves the “conveying away of good cheere and bringing in a mock feast of bones and stones steed thereof and the filling of pies with living birds and yong catts.” This spectacle lead Tomkyns to conclude that the show “passeth for a merrie and excellent new play.”[4] 

While the filling of pies with birds and cats is an example of the early modern theater’s ability to produce appealing, over-the-top images with the help of props, there were many more occasions on which, given the setting of the play, no mere prop would suffice. As an actor himself in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare certainly benefited from an inside understanding of what props could and could not be used in the theater. With what props he knew he would be able to supply onstage, Shakespeare makes clever use. In Henry V, a story of far-reaching scope featuring several battles, the most famous of which is Agincourt, the playwright includes a Chorus to fill in the gaps left by an insufficiency of props to set the scene. The Chorus calls on the audience at several points throughout the play to use their imaginations in order to supply what is physically lacking on the stage. The Chorus is first to appear onstage and speaks directly to the audience, asking them rhetorically, “Can this cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France?” The answer is understood to be “no,” the audience must “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (Prologue). Later, when King Henry sails for the French port of Harfluer, such a grand scene cannot to be presented onstage. Once again, the Chorus appears and paints a picture for the audience: “Suppose that you have seen the well-appointed king at Hampton pier embark his royalty; […] play with your fancies: and in them behold upon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing; hear the shrill whistle which doth order give to sounds confus’d; behold the threaden sails, borne with th’ invisible and creeping wind, Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed sea, breasting the lofty surge.” (III.Chorus) This powerfully evocative description brings to mind the sights and sounds of a ship setting sail from a busy port without necessitating it to appear on stage. 

The early modern tradition of building props from scratch continues today at the American Shakespeare Center. Actor Emily Gibson says that the company often makes their own props in lieu of purchasing new ones. Props are frequently reused season to season since the ASC operates on a rotating repertory. Gibson asserts that, in productions at the Blackfriars playhouse, an effort is made to limit prop usage to what is called for specifically in the text of the play. Since the sets at the ASC are not large or elaborate, an excess of props would seem incongruous. Too many props, Gibson says, “can muddy what’s happening on stage, or can get in the way. You need what you need to tell the story; you don’t need a bunch of superfluous stuff.” In this way, the American Shakespeare Center follows the same principles of prop usage that early modern players did. 

Gibson has found that props can help “to tell a story of darkness.” In the Elizabethan tradition, the Virginia Blackfriars Playhouse remains lit throughout the show, which means that props such as lanterns or candles are critical in creating the illusion of darkness. Gibson referenced a scene in Othello, when Lodovico speaks of the “heavy night” (Othello, V.i.42). In this case, darkness creates confusion among characters that cannot see each other or what is happening around them. This darkness allows Iago to treacherously stab Cassio from behind, and moments later to rail against those who would “Kill men i’ th’ dark” (V.i.64). It also meant that, when Iago reappears carrying a light, the audience fully believes that only now can the actors see each other, when before they could not, although the lighting in the theater had not changed at all. 

Most importantly, Gibson concluded, it is Shakespeare’s words which tell both an actor and the audience about the character and plot. Unlike modern theaters which rely on props and sets for performance, Shakespeare’s audience was highly attuned to the language on stage. In fact, Gibson believes that relying on their imaginations to fill in the gaps left by a lack of scenery or props is one of the things that modern audiences enjoy most about seeing a play at the ASC. “One of the coolest things we do here is to ask people to use their imaginations,” she says, explaining that, in this way, the actors are allowing the audience to actively participate in the action on the stage. In this way, providing fewer props for the actors allows that audience to be “part of creating the magic” she says.

[1] Tiffany Stern, Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), 94. 
[2]Philip Henslowe, Henslowe’s Diary: Second Edition, ed. R.A. Foakes (Cambridge: UK, Cambridge University Press, 2002), 319-321.
[3] Henslowe, 218.4A letter by Nathaniel Tomkyns to Sir Robert Phelips, 16 August 1634, quoted in Andrew Gurr, The Shakespeare Company: 1594-1642 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 266.